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Good design is innovation. And in great products, you’ll find entrepreneurial thinking built into the tiniest corners. This is a principle Heidi Tsao carries into her work each day as Director, Digital Experience for HR consulting firm Morneau Shepell. The company’s embedded team of intrapreneurs works with partners like Intersect to innovate client products and change the trajectory of their businesses. Their new HR web portal is poised to be a game-changer, and they’re doing it through design – by putting the user first. What are the conditions required for innovation within the HR space? And how do you truly learn to see the world through your customers’ eyes? Read on for Heidi’s insights on these challenges.

What does intrapreneurship mean to you? How would you define it?

To me, intrapreneurship means recognizing opportunities for improvement and innovation, and just doing it – whether it falls within your jurisdiction or not. It’s taking action rather than waiting for an idea to be assigned. Instead, you just go for it.

Tell me about your day job: how do you do what you do? What motivates you to keep moving forward?

Morneau Shepell is a human resources consulting and technology company that takes an integrated approach to employee assistance, health, benefits, and retirement needs.

In my role, as a Senior Digital Product Manager, I ensure that our digital products are easy and enjoyable to use. I do this by always putting the user first and trying to understand what our users would want. Good design isn’t always noticed upfront, but I like the idea that I could be improving someone’s day, or making it more efficient, through the kind of work that I do.

In my workplace, I find I’ve become a kind of ambassador for innovative thinking; it’s not in my job description, but I like doing things to help get people’s creativity up. I started doing this thing called ‘The Daily Mind Grind,’ where I post a riddle in a common area for people to solve. I’ve learned that innovation is both big and small. Sometimes it’s the little things that motivate you.

Describe the most interesting project you’ve worked on recently. How did innovation play out in that work?

One of the most interesting projects I’m working on right now is called Mylife 2.0. This is a client-first portal that allows employees to maximize their HR programs, like their health benefits, pension plans, total rewards, etc.; they can choose new benefits, record life changes, and see what options are available to them. It also offers a wealth of resources; for example during a pregnancy or other major life event, there’s a massive library of information at their fingertips that they can access.

Symbility Intersect helped us redesign and approach Mylife 2.0 from a user-centric viewpoint to innovate its look and feel. We’ve been demoing it to our clients, and when they see it, they grasp the concept immediately. It’s a great feeling, because I can tell they like it. You can see the familiarity in their eyes. They recognize what we’re doing.

Symbility created this new design prototype; my role has been to build out the design going forward, creating the actual functionalities to make the implementation work seamlessly. We’re launching it with our first client in the fall, which is very exciting.

What are, in your opinion, the key conditions for successful intrapreneurship in large organizations?

Senior leaders definitely need to be on board. Innovation needs to have “teeth” in the sense that it needs internal support to take hold. You also need an appetite for experimentation and risk-taking to go along with it; a sense of curiosity, a real interest in making things better. And, this all has to happen in a collaborative environment, because to get anything amazing done, you’ll need help from across the organization.

Last but not least, you need to cultivate an attitude that failure is OK. It’s going to happen when you’re innovating, and it should be seen as part of the process – a learning opportunity.

What are some of the skills and tools you rely on to succeed? How do you identify that type of thinking in potential employees?

A good portion of my job is convincing clients to do things a certain way, so I do a lot of prototyping where we test the concepts, first. Another big one is listening. It’s not just hearing, it’s taking steps to actively understand what people are really trying to say. In design, they might say, I don’t like X; you need to go further and ask the right questions to find out what they’re looking for.

When I’m hiring someone, I want to know if they have the intrapreneurial spirit we’re talking about. I look for the skills I just mentioned: listening well, asking questions. Do they look for opportunities to introduce their own ideas? This is what you want – someone who can build something once they understand the company, someone who can add a layer to it, improve on it. The people with the entrepreneurial skills? You hear about them. They stand out. You find out about them through your business and social networks, because they’re already doing interesting work.

Which organizations, in your mind, are doing innovation well? Who do you look up to and feel inspired by? Who are you mentored and supported by?

I’m really inspired by Tangerine; I used to work for them, so I know it’s an organization where innovation and entrepreneurship are really encouraged. And, I’m a client myself, so I see the projects they’re working on from a client perspective.

Of course, there are the obvious innovators, like Apple or Google, but even with these big players, you can see entrepreneurial thinking in the non-obvious spots, in the tiniest corners of their product. When you lose your internet connection, there’s a little game you can play while you’re waiting to reconnect. Because someone at Google thought that losing your connection might be annoying, and a game might be a fun way to divert your attention. I’m guessing they didn’t have to fight to get a budget or submit a thorough business plan. I’m guessing they just went ahead and did it. They started out with that customer-first philosophy and just took the leap.

In terms of who inspires me, it’s the people around me who invest their time and energy in side projects: a colleague who created a colouring book for Syrian refugees, for example, or my 11-year-old daughter, who makes tissue paper decorations and sells them at street fairs. I lean the same way with mentorship, too. I look to leaders in the not-for-profit space who are turning passion into purpose; people who carve out time in their day to do good things with clear objectives.

How do you create an environment and culture where innovation projects can move forward and ultimately thrive?

Innovation has to be prioritized. It has to be more than just a buzzword, with KPIs attached to it. Then, you have to really encourage people to innovate. In my workplace, I’m part of a group called the Innovation Centre; we hosted an innovation challenge where we asked employees to submit their ideas on how to help our clients. We ended up with over 160 ideas, which was really exciting to us – seeing that so many employees had put energy into the task. We shortlisted a group to pitch to senior executives. This was important – to show that people at a senior level care about this. Ultimately, these ideas will be turned into living and breathing projects, with capital assigned to them.

What are the most common mistakes or pitfalls you have seen large organizations make in regards to intrapreneurship? How do you break through and overcome those barriers?

Talking the talk but not walking the walk; not moving past innovation as a buzzword; not being honest about their appetite for change; considering innovation a make-work project that gets assigned to junior team members without clout. A common barrier in older organizations is that people who’ve been there a long time become used to doing certain things a certain way, so moving forward with new ideas can be hard. For innovation to succeed, people need to collaborate and care. If you don’t, as a company, that’s okay – just keep doing what you do best, but don’t pretend that you want to innovate if you aren’t fully invested in it.

What’s your best advice for the intrapreneurs and companies interested in nurturing the culture of innovation?

First, define what innovation means to you. Yes, it’s about thinking out of the box, but unless you clearly define what it means in terms your employees buy into, it’s not going to happen. Then you have to apply processes to it. You need to attach it to KPIs, or something measurable, some way of charting progress.

If you’re an intrapreneur, you should anticipate being told “no” a lot. Traction may be a challenge. My advice is, if you can’t realize your ideas, work hard at helping others get their projects off the ground; it will pay off later on.

How do you keep on top of what’s coming next?

You have to always be asking, is there a better or different way to do something, and then realize there always is.

In terms of what’s coming next, I don’t look much at industry news, but I listen to what my friends and peers are talking and joking about, what they’re criticizing. The real ideas are often found in the comments.

People will add the best ideas almost as a footnote. ‘I wish they put in XYZ, I wish they’d done this instead of that.’ That’s where the next big thing is coming from.

Heidi Tsao

Director, Digital Experience Morneau Shepell

Heidi Tsao is a Director, Digital Experience at Morneau Shepell, with more than 20 years experience in hands-on digital and traditional design, strategy, ideation, and people management.